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Wisconsin county jails cope with prison doors closing

JAIL

JANESVILLE (WKOW) - Wisconsin's county jails are coping with the state's decision to close prisons to any new admissions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

"They are the responsibility of the prisons, yet we are being left with the inmates," Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson says.

Knudson says his jail currently has nine inmates who should be starting prison sentences at facilities under the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

"It's a hardship for our local jails," he says of the move by the state corrections department.

But Knudson says several steps have helped reduced Rock County jail population during this health crisis, including: limiting new jail admissions by focusing on serious, alleged offenses, and allowing individuals with warrants for minor crimes to remain free in cases; a fifty percent increase in the number of inmates being released on electronic monitoring; and a policy change by the state corrections department. "Probation and Parole helped by releasing some of their inmates whose cases they felt could be addressed at a later time," Knudson says.

Rock County's proactive steps in response to the threat of the coronavirus has reduced the jail's population in a week's time by one hundred inmates to a jail census Monday of 215, according to Knudson.

Knudson says staffing is no longer needed at a control center on one of the jail's floors, where an average of sixty inmates a week would normally be housed. He says the changes have provided him with an important contingency. "Because of our lower population, we've been able to clean out a section to keep it in reserve for medical overflow if we get to that point," Knudson says.

Knudson reinforces there are no current cases of coronavirus among jail staff or inmates.

The decision by state officials to cut-off any new prison admissions came one day after a report of a department of corrections employee testing positive for the coronavirus. State officials said the move was made to stop any potential, virus spread and keep employees and prisoners safe.

Knudson says he understands the challenges for those who supervise inmates as COVID-19 cases increase in Wisconsin.

"That's not to say that over this next week, we don't continue to negotiate with the state and see if they can take over (inmates) that are already sentenced and maybe put the moratorium on after that," Knudson says.

Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney was more critical of the state's decision, according to a report on madison.com. "It's just very frustrating as we're trying to keep our own institutions healthy while we continue to hold prison inmates for the department of corrections, that we were not involved in at least a conversation about the need to find a collaborative solution," Mahoney says.

Dane County's jail population hovers around eight hundred inmates and if there's the need to lower it markedly, an increase in the electronic monitoring of released inmates to achieve that is not a current option. Such monitoring is carried out through the Pretrial Services program, which is no longer accepting new referrals.

"The unavailability of monitoring will likely change the nature of bail negotiations in court," County Clerk of Courts Carlo Esqueda says. "It may very well be an unintended consequence that the number of defendants in jail in pretrial status will increase," he says.

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